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Hot air balloonists didn’t know where they’d land. Until now.

With his app, a champion racer hopes to make ballooning easier and safer.

By Matt Crossman

As rural Ohio rolled by slowly below us, Al Nels stood at one end of his hot air balloon’s wicker basket, telling stories. Above, keeping us aloft, the nylon balloon also told Nels’ life history: images sewn into it included a plane for his pilot son, the name of one daughter’s bakery, an apple for his other daughter, who is a teacher, and more.

Nels also shared memories that weren’t in the panels, about flying Walter Cronkite in a hot air balloon in France and catching his childhood neighbor’s garage on fire with a toy balloon powered by candles.

Then, his eyes dancing, he joked that he was going to show me a high-tech way to measure the wind below us. He sprayed shaving cream over the side of the basket and watched it drop. “Barbasol falls at 500 feet per minute,” he said, his white goatee framing his smile. Wherever the shaving cream went, that’s where we’d go, too … if we were at that altitude.

As with every hot air balloon flight, Nels could control our altitude and that’s it. There is no way to steer; a balloon goes where the wind blows it and nowhere else.

Hot air ballooning, described in stark terms, does not sound like something we would start doing in 2022 if we weren’t already doing it. Like, seriously — you go up in an aircraft with no way to steer, no way to know where you’re going to land, and all you can control is your height?

Nobody would get in a car or plane with only a vague sense of where it might end up. Balloonists would like to know better. Mark West, past president of the Balloon Federation of America, told me the missing link in balloon navigation has long been precise information about what direction and speed the wind is blowing at what altitudes.

Now Nels, 69, a retired engineer from Ohio, is helping to find those answers. He’s conceived an app that blends high technology, smartphones, and a child’s toy balloon. He and West believe the app, called WindExplorer, will make hot-air ballooning easier and safer, and therefore more popular.

That sounded good to me, as I looked down at houses and bridges. Before Nels and I took off, I had spoken with Randy Wells, a friend of Nels who piloted another balloon that day. “I know I’m going to land somewhere that way,” Wells had said, waving his arm to the north and east, and miles and miles of highways, homes, parking lots, and farms.

“That way” was pretty broad, I thought, as the Barbasol disappeared below us. We floated as if in a dream — the kind of dream where we show up for the final exam of a class we never attended. I’ve had a version of that, where I’m on stage in a rock band playing bass, though I don’t actually know how to play it.

We were high in the air. Where were we going to land?

Humanity’s first flight came not in a plane, but in a hot air balloon. It was piloted by Frenchmen Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, Marquis of Arlanders. Launched November 21, 1783, in Paris, that balloon rose at least 500 feet high and floated for about 20 minutes, covering 5 miles. Benjamin Franklin was there to see it, and he wrote in his journal: “We could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration.”

And maybe a little fear. They had run test flights with animals in the basket, just to be safe. King Louis XVI, a witness to these early flights, suggested that criminals should make the first manned flight because (paraphrasing here), if they died, who cares? I bet the bad guys lined up to volunteer for a ride in a vehicle going somewhere nobody could predict. Easiest escape ever.

Alas, that idea was abandoned.

When Laurent and de Rozier took off, they had no clue where they were going or where they would land. Balloonists today have a clue, but only a clue. It all depends on the wind, which is generated by movement of air from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure.

As you fly higher, the wind typically becomes faster, but also smoother. Landing a balloon in a city is especially challenging, if not impossible, because buildings — like any other item on the ground — disturb the wind, says Luca Caracoglia, who leads the Wind Engineering Group at Northeastern University.

“Ballooning is a game played from the shoulders up. If you have brains and can reason things, you can be a very good competitive pilot.”

Al Nels, champion sport balloonist and co-inventor of the app WindExplorer

“Flying a balloon in the Midwest is easier than flying a balloon in New York City,” says Caracoglia, who has taught and written about the effects of wind on structures and how to harness wind as energy. “You always have to ask yourself,” Caracoglia says, “what’s the scale of the turbulence you’re dealing with versus the scale of the object you’re trying to fly?”

The answer would come from measuring the wind, but up until now, the tools to do so have been imprecise. One tool comes from the National Weather Service, which twice a day releases 92 balloons to gather weather information, including pressure, temperature, and relative humidity. From that info, meteorologists create forecasts, including about the wind. Balloonists pore over that information like mountaineers pore over trail maps.

But those forecasts are notoriously unreliable, so balloonists also draw data by observation. Before they launch their hot air balloons, pilots release a small helium balloon, known as a “pibal” (short for “pilot balloon”). Many balloonists simply watch where the pibal goes and make educated guesses about what that tells them about the wind. It’s pretty much exactly like watching the Barbasol fall out of the basket, only the pibal goes up instead of down. Some balloonists use a scope and compass to chart where the pibal goes, measuring the balloon’s location at timed intervals. The difference between the points reveals how fast and in what direction the wind is blowing. But it still involves a lot of guesswork.

Super-serious balloonists use a theodolite, a device that looks like a cross between a video camera and a microscope. It follows the same basic premise of charting the pibal while allowing for more accurate measurements. But theodolites are difficult to use and very expensive; there are only about 10 in use by balloonists in the United States.

For all but the very select few, then, precise information is scarce. “We need actual, real data,” West says. “We need something that’s really accurate as to what’s going on.”

Al Nels thinks he has the answer.

As a boy in Ohio in the early 1960s, Nels built hot air balloons out of dry-cleaning bags, using straws for the framework, with heat from a torch and candles. He affixed postcards to his balloons with the hope someone would find one and send it back. A farmer discovered one in a potato field in West Virginia months after its launch and mailed it to Nels.

In college, while studying engineering, Nels joined a balloonist’s crew. A week after his first flight, he started flying lessons; a month later, he had his commercial pilot certificate. His career was in manufacturing management, but his passion was ballooning, and the competitions that draw thousands of balloonists — he’s a two-time national champion and two-time world champion sport balloonist. And for decades, with a curious, what if? thought process, he conjured novel ways to improve the flying experience.

In the 1990s, he says, he was the first pilot to bring a laptop in his basket. A friend of his, a software engineer and ham radio operator, figured out how to transfer information to the laptop via ham radio. “I was the only one who had remote readings coming up to my basket for probably 20 years,” Nels says. “It was great.”

Not long after smartphones came out, Nels had the idea to create an app that could track the wind. He had an aha moment when he realized smartphones had built-in ways to measure everything he needed to know — including his location in time and space, due north, and the movement of a pibal.

At first, Nels imagined his navigation idea as a way to gain an advantage in competitions.

In any given contest, competitors have up to six tasks to complete per flight. Sometimes they take off where they want and try to fly to a location set by judges. Sometimes they take off where they want and try to go to a location they choose. Sometimes both the takeoff and location are dictated. Sometimes they have to drop a bean bag on a giant X.

Knowing more about the wind than everybody else is an obvious advantage. “I like to win,” Nels says. “Ballooning is a game played from the shoulders up. It has nothing to do with your physical skills. If you have brains and can reason things, you can be a very good competitive pilot.”

But on the way to slow-moving, high-flying, wind-directed glory, Nels changed his mind. His app could serve a higher purpose, he decided, than just adding trophies to his collection. A better wind-reading system could make ballooning easier, safer, and more accessible, to retain current balloonists and attract more. Not knowing where you are going is an obvious barrier to entry for someone who might otherwise become a pilot. If that barrier was removed, Nels says, more people would fly balloons.

So he decided to make the app free to members of the Balloon Federation of America, whose membership has dropped by 10 to 15 percent over the last few years, according to West. “I’m concerned about our sport,” Nels says. “What good is it to be the one who can win with nobody to compete against? We need more people doing this.”

Once Nels decided the app would be free for BFA members, he had to find someone to create it. He shared his idea with the University of Dayton, where Howard Evans, an adjunct professor of engineering — and retired Air Force navigator — was intrigued by the idea of an aircraft with no navigation.

Between 2018 and 2021, Evans’ students developed WindExplorer, which is scheduled to be released this spring. The app uses the phone’s gyro sensor — which measures the angle at which a phone is held — to record measurements every 100 feet of the pibal’s ascension, as a user holds the phone to track the little balloon. The phone’s GPS and timer root the action to specific times and places. So if the pibal was at point A at time Y, and it moves to point B at time Z, it’s a relatively simple math problem to figure out the wind speed and direction that blew it there. WindExplorer posts that data immediately to Google Drive, so other balloonists with access to that account can see it.

The most practical challenge the Dayton students encountered was how to point the phone at the pibal. They experimented with different ways, including mounting it with a scope and attaching it to a gun stock, but opted against those. They decided instead to offer three options: use the camera in portrait, use the camera in landscape, and — as Nels and Wells prefer — hold the phone sideways and point it, using the edge like the barrel of a rifle.

I felt no wind on the soccer fields where Nels, Wells, and I prepared to take off on a splendid fall afternoon under a sky of God-showing-off blue. Nels let me use the burner to fill his balloon with hot air, and I watched Wells use the app. He looked like a boy using his phone as a gun to pretend to shoot the pibal. This was when he told me he knew he would “land somewhere that way.”

Here’s a way to think about “that way” and how the app shrinks its boundaries. Imagine you are standing in the middle of a giant clock. With no wind data, you’d have no way of knowing if you will fly toward 12, 3, 6, 9, or anywhere in between. But WindExplorer showed we would fly between (roughly) 1:04 and 1:13 on the clock, depending on our height: 700 feet put us at 1:13, while 1,700 put us at 1:04.

On the day we flew, the wind patterns held steady. But they sometimes shift dramatically. During a competitive flight in Nebraska in 2019, says Wells, winds shifted 90 degrees over an hour or two. That’s the equivalent of thinking you’re going to fly to noon and instead heading toward 3.

WindExplorer shows pilots if the winds are unusually strong or stronger than predicted. That’s important to Wells, a relatively inexperienced pilot. If the app tells him the wind is too strong, he won’t fly.

There are possible non-ballooning applications, too. Nearly any hobbyist whose passion relies on wind — drone pilots, hang-gliders — could potentially use it. After a gas leak, the app could tell emergency management officials what path the fumes will follow.

Before our flight, I parked at a rural airport east-northeast from where we eventually took off. Based on wind forecasts, that’s where Nels thought we might land. But the wind wasn’t strong enough to blow us all the way there. Nels gave me flying lessons until we descended onto what appeared to be an estate — a nice house with a huge yard and pond. With Nels coaching, I had already handled filling the balloon, takeoff, and some of the flying. Now he turned over landing to me, too.

Landing is “easy.” All you do, for most of the time, is nothing. The air in the balloon cools, and you sink. As we neared the ground, Nels gave me instructions. I can’t take notes and land a balloon at the same time, so this is from memory: Wrap this rope around your arm no, don’t grab it, wrap it around your arm so you don’t lose it (repeat that a couple times) now pull on that rope, pull it hard PULL IT HARD and the next thing I knew, we were on the ground.

The rope I pulled opened a vent at the top of the balloon. Warm air poured out and cooler air replaced it. That slowed our descent until we hit the ground, at which point our buoyancy and gravity reached a detente. There’s an old pilot’s joke that a good landing is one you walk away from, and a great landing is one in which you can use the plane, helicopter, or balloon again. In that sense, this was a great landing, even if we laughed later at my inability to follow Nels’s instructions.

Early balloonists carried champagne to give out when they landed. They learned to do that, legend has it, after property owners attacked the earliest balloonists with pitchforks, because they thought they were demons dropping from the sky.

I didn’t see any pitchforks, or demons, or champagne. A few other balloons landed there before us. The homeowners came outside to see what was going on. After chit-chatting for a few minutes, they retreated inside.

Nels is a passionate photographer, and after we landed, he saw in his mind’s eye a compelling photograph of his balloon reflected in the pond. We moved the balloon to its banks, and he ran to the other side of it to take the picture. The late afternoon light bathed everything in a warm glow. The balloon’s vibrant, story-telling panels jumped off the water, which was perfectly still because there was no wind.

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He has written for Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, Men's Health, and The Washington Post.


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